Amazon’s $99 tablet shines for library and public domain books—and here are a few related tips

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Thumbs up on Amazon's Fire HD 6 from Len Edgerly of the Kindle Chronicles. Amazon’s new Fire HD 6, a $99 tablet computer, might be catnip for frugal lovers of library and public domain e-books who don’t need a cell phone in the same gadget.

Libraries themselves, in fact, may want to loan out HDs and other Amazon models while experimenting with other brands, too.

The six-inch screen’s resolution is 1280×800, and the pixel count is 252 per inch. That’s equal to many cell phones selling for twice as much. 252 ppi is just 48 ppi shy of the 300-ppi of the Voyage, the new top-of-the-line E Ink reader from Amazon.

The HD 6’s screen should also do well for watching movies from Amazon, OverDrive and other sources even though, in color reproduction and other respects, this is no iPad Air 2.

Users can even shoot their own photos and short  videos even if we’re not exactly talking about studio-high definition.

Others share my enthusiasm for the HD 6. Check out a text and video review from Len Edgerly of the Kindle Chronicles.

Major pros

Flaws notwithstanding, the HD 6 is a knockout at $99. And it’s a consolation prize of sorts, offering e-book fans one of my favorite text-to-speech voices among others—the enchanting, British-accented Ivona . No snobbery here. Ivona is just a good voice despite some robotic vestiges.

What’s more, libraries can buy the $149 ruggedized version of the HD 6 for kids or add third-party cases, such as the Turtle Skin models from Poetics.

Speaking of children, bear in mind  that the younger ones may respond far, far better to a color screen like the HD 6’s  than to the black and white of E Ink readers.

The six-inch screen is hardly the optimal size for reading to children, but it’s bigger than those on most cell phones, and is a good size for elementary schoolers reading on their own. (I’ll save for another time my thoughts on  the general topic of e-books vs. p-books for reading to kids).

Web browsing is faster than some earlier Fire tablets. And don’t let the 8GB storage put you off. If you don’t intend to load up the games and other apps and just want to focus on books or streaming movies, the storage should suffice even without relying on Amazon’s cloud services. And you can pay $19 more, as I did, to double the storage. Even better, the HD 6 reportedly works with a 32GB USB drive.

Some cons

Yes, I have mixed feelings about Amazon on a number of fronts, ranging from labor practices to its heavily proprietary approach and its hard sell, as I’ve indicated in such postings as How I turned my Fire HD and billboard into a good machine for an e-book lover.

I regard the current HD and the like as stopgaps. We really should be aiming for a national digital library endowment and a library-controlled ecosystem for library content—something more respectful of patron privacy and otherwise better. The ecosystem could be still be usable with machines from companies like Amazon. But top security experts answerable to libraries would be vetting the devices for privacy violations and, in plain English, letting patrons know of lapses. If people still wanted to buy nonvetted machines, then fine. But at least give them an option.

Just don’t expect on such miracles happening next week. What about the here and now? Already the HD 6  shows what’s possible despite its shortcomings.

Some negatives are the clunky design and the weight of .64 pounds, noticeably heftier than an E Ink device with the same-sized screen (other dimensions are 6.7" X 4.1" X 0.4"). Also, the side bezels need to be narrower. Then, more non-basketball players would be able to hold the Fire in one hand and squeeze the volume controls on the upper left to move ahead or go back a page (when they were using e-reading apps that permitted this). Remember, too, that battery life isn’t close to a typical E Ink machine’s.

Yet another con is Amazon’s annoying refusal to offer an all-bold option for its e-reading software to increase the perceived contrast between text and background. Most people won’t mind. But lack of all-bold  bothers me a lot. One recourse is to use night mode, white text on a black background. Also, for nonDRMed titles, you can run third-party programs that allow all-bold text.

A few tips on using OverDrive on the HD 6

So how does the HD fare with library e-books from OverDrive, the biggest provider of digital books for public libraries? Actually pretty well on the whole, compared with other tablets. OverDrive’s overview for Fire owners is here, and a video is here. You’ve got four ways to read books, not all of them mentioned in the overview.

1. By way of the Fire’s usual book-reading application. To find books from your local library, you can use the OverDrive app offered for free at the Kindle store. Or, from your library’s site, use your Web browser to discover the link to the appropriate pages of the OverDrive server that houses the library’s books. When you’re ready to check the books out, select the Kindle format. The software will send you to the Amazon site, and here’s what you do from there.

This is the easiest approach for Fire owners and lets you use the text-to-speech capabilities on most books. The plain-old Amazon approach—with OverDrive’s software directing people to their Amazon accounts—would be best for patrons new to e-books. May a library ecosystem someday make things still easier so you’re not bounced from site to site!

2. Via e-book files downloaded to the OverDrive app offered for free at the Kindle store. Granted, OverDrive relies heavily on a browser-style interface when you’re looking for books from your local library,  and the app lacks the polish of the built-in e-reading software from Amazon. But once you have the OverDrive going, your can enjoy such features as all-text bolding and even page turns with the volume keys (tap the settings icon at the top of the screen), as you can with other Android apps.

3. With OverDrive Read, a browser-based reader. But I myself favor the usual app, option #1, because I prefer the fonts there and OverDrive Read lacks all-bolding capabilities.

4. A third-party reader with Adobe DRM capabilities such as Mantano, including the TTS capabilities AWOL from OverDrive apps. Unfortunately, when you are using non-Amazon programs, Ivona  will not favor you with her presence and you must rely on another voice that you set up as the default within the HD 6’s language and keyboard settings.

Frustratingly, too, the Amazon App Store won’t let you download Mantano for the HD 6. I used an old copy of Mantano piped in from an Android machine. I haven’t tested the free version of Mantano from Good E-reader, but it may work. Remember to go into the HD’s app menu (reachable from the main pull-down menu) and temporarily allow installation of programs from non-Amazon sources.

The simplest path to installing Mantano would be through the Google Play Store, but unfortunately that’s also verboten by Amazon. One more reason to promote a library-controlled ecosystem for library books and other content.

HD 6s as library loaners—and limited revenue-raisers

Now—more on the HD 6’s library-related possibilities. A library could lend out the HD with a flash drive packed with public domain titles and authorized commercial ones and encourage patrons to copy the contents of the drive to their usual devices. It could also be an Amazon affiliate and turn a few stay dollars from sales of the HDs along with other products while offering classes in the devices’ use. Just don’t count on this as a major part of a library’s revenue model. Libraries should serve patrons, not think of themselves as product-pushers.

Still, it can be useful to focus traditional and online support on the more popular devices fit for library patrons. At the same time, libraries should encourage patrons to break free of the Amazon ecosystem—and those of library vendors like OverDrive and 3M—when they want to. With the Fire, all this is possible within bounds. The Fire can even run the Netflix movie app, not just display Amazon movies.

Of course, Amazon's $99 tablet is a bit of a Trojan horse for libraries. Reading books from any source is a Good Thing, but will patrons accustom themselves to Amazon book and movie rentals and care less about well-stocked public libraries? The best way to reduce the risk is for libraries to raise the percentage of their budgets devoted to e-books and to library content in general and encourage patrons to develop an appetite for more.

At the same time, through programs such as book-related movies (ideally shown with snacks), libraries can help young people and others discover and enjoy free public domain classics such as The Mysterious Island, the Jules Verne novel shown below on the Fire.

Public domain is where librarians and teachers can add especially value in the Internet era. Like Huckleberry Finn, Verne’s Island is best read in context (on matters ranging from race relations to science). Students will ask zillions of questions, and that’s a plus, not a minus. What better way, for example, to learn to distinguish between science and pop science? And, yes, a loosely adapted but still worthwhile movie of Island is out there—ready for in-library-viewing or for home-watching on the HD 6.

The cell phone book club angle

If nothing else, the HD 6 would be a natural for low-income members of cell phone book clubs who couldn’t afford fancy tablets, phablets or other phones (actually the 6 can do WiFi-based Skype). This $99 tablet could sell used for $50-$60 within a year.

And meanwhile, how about local libraries reaching out to better-off patrons to buy HD 6s or other econo-tablets for high-achieving students from low income families who were most likely to benefit from the technology? The machines could be considered loaners until the students showed they were reading on them in meaningful way. Good recreational reading certainly should count.

I can also see HD 6s or equivalent offered at discounts through Internet access programs in the vein of Comcast Internet Essentials.

The HD 6 for public domain books

FireMysIslandAmazon’s own bookstore offers thousands of free books, public domain and otherwise, but you can also read out-of-copyright works from a variety of other sources, including the public domain sections of OverDrive-based sites associated with local libraries. Downloaded in the Kindle format via the HD 6’s Silk browser, they will be viewable through the HD’s usual reading app.

Feedbooks tends to offer the best-formatted public domain titles. Going by the sheer number of books, the Internet Archive is a winner. And don’t forget the pioneering public domain site, Project Gutenberg.

One of the glories of Mantano (at least the paid version—I don’t know about the free one) is that without leaving the reader, you can download books from Feedbooks and elsewhere.

Moon+ Reader Pro, shown displaying the cover of The Mysterious Island, is my very favorite app for reading public domain books on the HD. It offers not only direct downloading capabilities for Feed and other sites, but also text to speech and a variety of fonts that I just can’t seem to find elsewhere (along with numerous other customization features).

TTS, alas, is available only in the paid version of Moon, which you an download to the Kindle by way of the AndroidPitt site. Put the site’s app on your HD 6. Then download the Moon app.

For a few more details on Mantano and Moon, see How to get the most out of library e-books via the right gadget, text-to-speech and otherwise, as well as How to read e-books on a $20 cell phones: Tips for the cash-strapped and plain adventurous.

Bonus capabilities of the HD 6:  I can't help but comment on the good voice recognition capabilities of the 6, especially when used with a decent plug-in microphone. Great for short e-mail messages. And come to think of it, the recognition actually can help within the reading apps, too, when you’re searching for a phrase or inserting  notes. Just tap on the microphone icon within the somewhat cramped virtual keyboard.

Reminder: The Fire is also available in a number of screen sizes and configurations, with screen sizes up to 8.9 inches. For reading, however, the six-inch size is among the more optimal, and I notice that Len Edgerly feels the same way. He correctly says LCD tablets and E Ink machines can complement each other. Via the Fire, for example, you can speed to a linked Web site from within an e-book. E Ink readers will slow you down. On the other hand, they have better battery life.

Bottom line:  I’m still grumpy about the lack of text to speech in the latest Paperwhites and even the deluxe Voyage despite countless complaints from LibraryCity and so much of the rest of the world. The HD 6, with its Ivona voice and friends, is a nice consolation prize. But I still hope for TTS. Come on, Amazon. Given the $199 you’re charging for the basic Voyage, that’s the least you can do. Same for all-bolding capability.

Note: This is a “first edition.” Email me if you spot glitches.

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